Is this the same as being a good movie? Well, not exactly, though the director, David Fincher, clearly thinks so. But it is the same as being a provocative experience that lights you up even as it brutalizes you. And I don't even like Brad Pitt very much.
I do like Edward Norton a great deal, and in this movie he's extremely likable. He's the one with the thankless role of the regular guy so regular that his name is Jack taken up by a charisma merchant and taken to places he couldn't imagine, goaded to do things he couldn't conceive, and so typical in these cases stuck facing the consequences. He's the baffled rationalist in a world gone cataclysmic.
Pitt's Tyler Durden is the cataclysmizer. It's a perfect role for an actor as shallow, beautiful and cool as Pitt. He gets to wear funky clothes and auto grease in his hair, and let a cigarette dangle from his insolent, pretty mouth like a white baton. He struts, he fights, he bleeds, he pees (usually into somebody's soup; professionally he's a waiter). He is freedom to Jack's dynamic of repression; he is the answer to Jack's question.
Beyond the dance of these two goober mensches, one can easily tick off the formal flaws in the film as narrative and note the many ways it doesn't hang together and sometimes doesn't even hang separately. Its climax is a triumph of muddled incomprehensibility, so twisted that you're thinking: Am I seeing what I'm seeing, and if I am, what the hell can it mean?
I must testify that it drove viewers at a preview out in droves, some of them quite angry. But unlike so many of today's movies, you actually come out feeling something, some spike of sensation that could signify your deep brain's collapse or its enlightenment.
What the movie is selling and what it delivers at near ether-pure dosage is attitude, a Fincher specialty as evidenced by his hit "Seven," also with Pitt. This is your true-blue, angry-young-man rant at a world he thought he'd inherit but from which he was exiled by forces beyond his comprehension. He thus resorts to psychic nihilism and fractionalization, as if becoming two beings. One wants to be the good boy and please the father who abandoned him (still, after all these years) and fit into the world; the other one wants to orchestrate its destruction, watch it rewind to ash and rubble, and hear the screams of the smug as they bleed out under the tons of blasted brick.
So, in some respects, it's a hymn of praise to anarchy and chaos. To this impulse, it says: way cool. And this, of course, is why all sane people over the age of 50 will loathe and fear it. They should.
The movie is so full of ideas and anger that it has great difficulty finding a story form to organize them. It's only consistency is its tone, largely controlled by Jack's deadpan-hip narration full of brilliant grace notes. It is certainly one of the most beautifully written narrations in movie history, far better than the stylings in "American Beauty." And it's one of the funniest, in that sick way that kids like so much.
It's also a secret encomium to self-inflicted pain. These people all of them like pain. If the world won't cooperate, they inflict it on themselves. They need it to feel connected, to keep from floating off into nothingness. This is a profoundly disturbing notion, but somehow it feels authentic.
But as story, the movie mutates every seven or eight minutes into some new form and strains against those conventions; shattering them, it moves on. In its two-hour-plus running time, it's a corporate satire, a down-and-out love story, a buddy picture to end all buddy pictures, an ironic discourse on its own very movieness, a para-fascist parable, a whatta twist! movie like "The Sixth Sense," and an apocalypse-now blastoff. By the end, not only is the cast in ruins, so is the story.
Norton's Jack is a mild mid-level bureaucrat at an unnamed car company, by his own admission a "30-year-old baby." He has a nightmare job: He must investigate accidents "Look, that's where her hand melted," someone says at one and determine whether the lawsuits they generate will cost more or less than a recall to correct the mechanical flaw that caused them.
You can see screenwriter Jim Uhls's dark, angry humor at play here: This is a cynic's distillation of all corporate evil into one bland young man's perfectly reasonable job.
Jack can't sleep. Guilt? Boredom? Fury? He doesn't know. But he decides weirdly, but then the film is a tapestry of the weird that he needs to see others worse off. Thus he becomes addicted to the self-help lifestyle. He roams the city at night in search of groups dedicated to the truly doomed. Testicular cancer is one of his favorites, though lymphoma also has its pleasures. In facing the doomed, he comes not to feel so bad and at last gets some shut-eye.
But in his roamings, he meets another tourist, Marla (Helena Bonham Carter). Death-haunted, beautiful, hip as a mountain of Prada shoes and totally screwed up, Marla attracts Jack even as she repels him. He wants her; he hates her. She wants him; he bores her. They are the same; they are different. You'd think they'd have so much in common, both being habitues of the death-by-slow-disease fan club, but they don't want to share the treasures of the lifestyle with the other. They agree to a schedule so each will enjoy the high of grief isolated from the other.
Then, on a flight, Jack runs into an amazing fellow, Tyler Durden: soap merchant, proselytizer of nihilism and bad dresser. Something about Tyler: He's a sprite of destruction, an avatar of desolation. He knows how to make dynamite from soap and other common household ingredients. He stands for the allure of destruction, the freedom of irresponsibility. He doesn't give a damn about anything, least of all himself.
Of course, this makes him irresistibly glamorous, and soon Jack has become Tyler's best friend and gofer. This is a classic pattern, familiar from at least as long ago as "Brideshead Revisited," where the flashy boy liberates the dull boy. It's been done a thousand times in a variety of genres, but here it's almost myth-pure.
It's Tyler who comes up with the idea of the "fight club," where the disaffected and alienated men can beat the hell out of each other. In that way, they feel things, and it's a peculiarity of the movie that this titular issue it finds not that interesting. The fights are bloody but meaningless. Victory isn't the point; reality is. But the fights are merely a largely unbelievable means to an end, the end being a cult, so that Tyler becomes not merely a leader but a zealot and possibly a messiah. Except he has this thing about blowing things up.
And, of course, it isn't long before Tyler runs into Marla, and the two of them are thrashing like Nautilized bunnies in a hutch, much to Jack's secret fury.
Does any of this make sense? It makes even less on screen. And the longer it lasts, the less sense it makes until it reaches a tantrum of apocalyptic grandeur. It fits into a genre that might be called hipster's hallucinations: "Repo Man" was the last such, and you could track it on back to the insane "Kiss Me Deadly," where in the last scene a secretary opens a suitcase and blows up the world in the process.
Understand, I am not writing a defense. The movie is indefensible, which is what is so cool about it. It's a screed against all that's holy and noble in man, a yelp from the black hole. It's a sharp stick in the eye.
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company
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